Love.

John 13:31-35

The New Commandment

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 

33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be
It’s easy

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need

The Beatles sang this back in the 60’s.  We all know it, yet it’s hard for us to understand it.  Love is a word that gets thrown around a lot.  But, at its core, it’s a relational term.  I believe it is embodied fully in Jesus’ actions and attitudes with each of us.

What does Jesus’ love look like?  Oftentimes I’m asked at weddings to read the “love chapter” found in 1 Corinthians 13.  It has beautiful poetry, but it’s not about love between two persons…no one can love that way except for God.  It’s a chapter describing perfect love, sit back, close your eyes, soak in some of these words as if God is speaking directly to you:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Wow.  And, this is what Jesus is saying to us.  Live, or abide, remain in my love.  As my spiritual director reminds me, it is abiding love with us..Jesus isn’t going anywhere, as a matter of fact, Jesus is present with us in this room, right now, and is chasing after us…won’t give up on us.

Jesus was and is present with each of us.  It’s hard, I know, but when we begin to move towards understanding ourselves, asking the really hard questions and confronting the things in our lives that prevent us from experiencing the abundant life that we talked about last week, in knowing who we are and who God, we can begin to truly be present with ourselves, others, and God.  We begin to experience love.  

A couple of years ago, on my birthday during a COVID surge, I gathered with close friends from all over the world for a birthday celebration on Zoom.  It was fun, and then it got serious…one of them asked me what I wanted out of life, I simply said “presence”.  Apparently they wanted something more tangible in their minds…I’ve since realized how important presence really is…it allows me to love myself, others, and to grow in God’s love flowing in and all around me.  

One of the places I go to practice “presence” is the Abbey of Gethsemani as many of you know.  We’ve mentioned this before, but the monks there pray for three things every day:  stability, conversion, and obedience.  Jesus, in this morning’s passage commands us to love God.  An act of obedience is to love, and to love well.  As we do that, we begin to understand deeply that Jesus is truly our friend and that leads to other friendships.

Friendship means a lot to me.  As your pastor, I have made a commitment in my vows to be your friend, to love you.  And, in your vows when you called me here, you committed to be my friend, and to love me. 

As I practice friendship, sometimes in beautifully messy ways!  I find that our friendships leads towards common aims.  Many of my friends in this city and around the world are all working towards seeing goodness happen in communities.  And we are asl well, as our church is partnering with others for that goodness, out of love, like we did with Cincy4Ukraine, with Tikkun Farm, with Valley Interfaith…we are being a place of generosity and momentum towards others and each other.  

Sometimes we may think that we’d like to simply shirk away from friendship, from being present.  Yet, Jesus reminds us that God’s glory is wrapped up in our glory, in our being fully alive.  And that Jesus is in that process with us…there are times when we have to realize that our view of Jesus changes, we don’t recognize him sometimes as he says in this passage today.  

Friends, a practical takeaway from what I’m sharing is this…YOU are loved, God is present with you, cultivate that understanding, and know that God desires for the best for you…and for this church.

I think that’s why I’m so confident about Fleming Road UCC.  We will move towards a great story…we are on the crusp of amazing personal and corporate growth as a church, and as persons!  Believe it…accept it.  Receive this love and bear fruit!

And, remember these words:

All you need is love (All together, now!)
All you need is love (Everybody!)
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need
Love is all you need (Love is all you need)

Jesus embodies this love, Jesus is here, present with you through his spirit the Holy Spirit, that connects all of us and all of this…and ultimately keeps us firmly in the Presence of Jesus even as Jesus is present with us.

May we love one another and our neighbors (which means everyone) well!  And, as we do, as Jesus reminds us this morning, the world around us will know that we are truly Jesus followers!

Voice.

John 10:10-18

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 

14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

When I was in England in February, I stayed with our close friends, the Kenny’s.  They are great people, many of you have met their daughter, Georgia, who lived with us for about a year or so.  We first met Georgia and her family several years ago when our kids were quite young.  We bonded on a trip to England at a fundraiser for Oasis.  After that night, we spent the next several days together and have tried to visit one another and keep in contact via Zoom.  

On that trip several years ago, through a wild chain of events, our family ended up staying for several days at an English manor house on the Penshurst Estate outside of Tonbridge, UK.  It was an amazing mansion overlooking an even much more expansive mansion/castle, the estate of the Sidney family since 1552.  

Side note:  the Kenny’s have since bought their own English manor house and castle…Embleton Tower.

At Penshurst, and Embleton, there are tons of sheep, all over the UK as you’d imagine…but, at Penshurst, 

like four fields of sheep between our manor house and the estate house below…and Georgia, and her siblings Hannah and Phoebe, and our kids, McKenzie and Brennan, spent the better part of a day and night running through those fields trying to catch a sheep.  They were not successful.

However, during the day, we’d notice someone opening up a gate from one field to the other, and those sheep would follow his voice.

I tell you this because our passages this morning are about sheeps and shepherds.  I read once that you cannot very easily approach sheep…they are sheepish if you will.  They aren’t easy to heard either, unless you are their shepherd.  Shepherds, especially in Jesus’ time, spent a lot of time with sheep.  Shepherds had a way of gathering sheep, by simply calling them out.  Sheep will follow the shepherd because they recognize the shepherd’s voice.  They trust that voice.

In this passage, we are sheep, you and I together.  It’s obviously a metaphor, but much like the beauty of the landscape at Penshurst, we are live together in a beautiful world.  We also produce a lot of smelly and messiness.  Our kids found that out pretty quickly.  Our relationships with each other are filled with craziness at times, we don’t always follow or lead each other well.  There are dangers around us, and sometimes there are other forces out there, thieves such as depression, loneliness, selfishness, pride, or addictions, or folks not being the best version of themselves, or fully understanding themselves or others that come in the middle of darkness as it says in John 10:10 that kill and destroy the lives that we were called to live.

Yet, Jesus tells us that he has come to give us life.  When we slow down, or get caught up in recognition of good things around us and the origin of that goodness, we can recognize the voice of the true shepherd, the voice of Jesus who has entered in the fields of our lives, who walks with us and towards us…walking through the messiness to call us towards new fields, new adventures.  

We often recognize the voice of Jesus through others.  Maybe we literally hear words from Jesus through others such as a speaker, or maybe even a preacher.  Or maybe we recognize the voice of God through something we read, or a song we hear.  Maybe it’s listening to our neighbors. Or, maybe it’s seeing someone else practice charity through actions or giving themselves away.

We know it when we see it and hear it though, especially as we train our eyes and ears to see and recognize the true shepherd and the voice of that shepherd.

Friends, we have said it before, we are living in a new place with church.  The old forms simply don’t work anymore.  The world is crying out for us, the church, to be an example of goodness, of the good shepherd, to be reflections of Jesus’ actions and to reflect and amplify the voice of the Shepherd who is calling us towards him, towards abundant life, towards being one flock.  This shepherd has laid down his life for us, yet in doing so, has overcome all of the messiness in our lives and is creating something new and beautiful as he leads us into new fields, filled with beauty and relationship.

So, let’s listen to the voice of the Shepherd, let’s love each other well, and let’s play in the fields of our neighborhoods, and the world and be the diverse, yet unified flock God’s marked us out to be…we can do this, we can believe in each other as my grandfather did with me and God does with us, trusting each other, loving each other, and changing the world in the process.

Conversion.

John 21:1-19

Jesus Appears to Seven Disciples

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Jesus and Peter

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Acts 9:1-10

The Conversion of Saul

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”

I grew up fishing with my dad.  I have to admit, I wasn’t good at it and didn’t particularly enjoy it.  I think it was because it was something my dad loved, and really wanted me to love it…but, I just didn’t.  It seems like a lot of times growing up, I had passions for some things like adventures in hiking mountains or sports, where as my dad had other passions such as fishing, carpentry, and people watching.

As I grew older, I had some deep friendships with folks who were great fisherman.  I began to realize that fishing can be a fun exercise.  It’s peaceful, strategic, and there is an art to it.  I have been amazed at some of my friends with a gift for fishing.  They simply know where to put their lines in the water, and the patience and talent to lure fish onto their hooks!

There was a gradual change within me towards fishing…a conversion if you will!

Our gospel lesson this morning finds the disciples after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They are near the Sea of Tiberius, they have heard rumors about Jesus’ resurrection, Peter has even seen evidence as have others, but the new reality is still sinking in.  They have been living under a perception of what faith meant, they had put their hopes and dreams in a visible earthly kingdom, and the Jesus that they followed…well, even though he may have risen, the images of him being crucified, and their shame in deserting Jesus was almost too much for them to process.

So, what do they do.  They go fishing.  They grew up around it, it gave them fellowship, a source of income, and they were good at it.  

The fished all night.  They knew the right places, they had the right technique, they had the correct bait to attract fish, yet, they caught nothing.  All night, nothing.  

The next morning, they see this guy on the beach yelling something to them.  It’s interesting that our text says “children”.  Some texts use the word friends, but children could apply.  They had not reached a point of change or growth in their understanding.  Their faith was still maturing.  But, I also like friends.  Both work here.  Calling the disciples children wasn’t saying anything about their character, I think it was a term of endearment, as well as a desire for growth.

What else does Jesus tell them?  Throw your nets on the other side!  I’m sure they are thinking, how would that help?  We know these waters, we know how to fish…moving our nets a few feel won’t do anything.  Yet, they had fished all night with no results.  They were doing what they always did which got them something in times past, but nothing on this day.

So, they take a risk, trusted this guy on the beach, and throw their nets on the other side.  What did they have to lose?  And, what happens?  We all know, they caught more fish than they could pull in!  153 to be exact!  Now, here’s a think about biblical numbers, this says nothing about goals.  I used to be on staff at a church that said we wanted to go out and “net 50” new families in the church during a fall.  It didn’t happen, nor was that biblical.  We can read too much into numbers, but essentially it a reporting of something that happens out of obedience and deep, loving, honoring and unashamed relationships.

We see that happening here in this gospel lesson.  When Peter realizes that its Jesus, when his eyes are opened to his friend, he puts on his clothes and jumps into the sea to swim to Jesus.  Now, I’m not sure of the custom at that time about fishing without clothes, and I’ve read a lot of commentaries on this passage, and I’m still not sure on why you’d put on clothes to swim even…yet, that’s in the passage…and it shows Peter being Peter, impulsive and passionate…and a leader that others would follow.  

Which they do, they get to shore and Jesus invites them to cook breakfast together.  He doesn’t hand them the food, they pull in their haul, start a fire, and cook together.  

After breakfast, they have this wonderfully awkward and hard dialogue.  Jesus asking Peter 3x if he loves Jesus.  I believe that Jesus is restoring Peter.  Peter denied him 3x on the night before he was crucified, so he asks Jesus 3x.  It must’ve been somewhat hard for Peter as evidenced in the passage.  Yet, he eventually catches on, and Jesus gives him the charge to build up the church.

Friends, this passage can speak to us in our personal lives and in lives together as Fleming Road UCC.  There may be things that we’ve done for a long time in our lives that simply are not working anymore, we need a fresh perspective, a resurrection even, maybe we need to put our nets somewhere else, maybe even right outside our church doors.  We certainly need to slow down, and listen to the voice of God calling us to jump out of whatever boat we are in and swim towards this Jesus who continues to beckon us towards deeper relationship with him, ourselves, and others.  

As we do this, we will find ourselves in the midst of conversion.  Conversion is a lifelong process.  The Benedictine monks that I hang out with when I go to the Abbey of Gethsemani, get it, they pray for Stability, Obedience, and Conversion daily.  

I believe in this process of change and growth.  One of our other scripture lessons this morning is the story of Paul’s conversion.  It was dramatic, on the road to Damascus, a blinding light, and the voice of Jesus.  It was also dramatic when you consider that Paul persecuted Christians, killed them, separated families, instilled fear in the early church.  Yet, love penetrates even the most darkest of places when we come before the light of God’s presence and hear the voice of Jesus calling us towards the other side of the boat, out of what we’ve become used to, and into the wide open spaces of God’s expansive love.

This church, our lives, we are in the midst of conversion.  All of us, myself included, are moving towards new chapters in our lives.  That is good news for me, for us, and for all of those around us.  

Next.

John 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[a]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah,[c] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I’m sure we have all heard the expression that something beautiful or scary or amazing to see can “take our breath away”.  We have probably also experienced moments in our lives when we’ve attempted something like riding a roller coaster at King’s Island, or jumping into a cold lake, or maybe experiencing the birth of a child where it “took our breath away”.

Perhaps we have also had moments in our lives filled with fear or anxiety, times where we feel like our breath has been taken away.

Or maybe we are like the writer of this song, Anna Nalick, “Breathe (2 AM)” that says:  

There’s a light at each end of this tunnel,
You shout ’cause you’re just as far in as you’ll ever be out
And these mistakes you’ve made, you’ll just make them again

Breathe, just breathe

We maybe feel trapped in situations that we feel like we can’t get out of on our own.  We feel caught and out of breath and in need of a “light at the end of a tunnel” or maybe out lives are like being underwater and we need to get to the surface for some air, to breathe.  We get caught in these moments and wonder “what’s next?”  And, can we handle what’s next?

Our text this morning has a lot to do with moments like this, moments in our lives when we need to breathe, breathing that brings life, and not just any life, but life as it was meant to be lived.

Right after Jesus’ death on a Roman cross and resurrection from the dead.  Jesus appears to his disciples.  I’m sure they were overwhelmed, in shock, and wondering what was going to happen next.  

They were locked in a room, afraid of the same folks who had just crucified Jesus and fearful that they would be after them as well.  They were wondering if there was a light at the end of the tunnel of fear that they were experiencing, the uncertainty was overwhelming, not sure what to think about what’s going to happen next.  The room was shut, and probably the lives of those disciples were in a state of being shut down from fear. There was probably a war of emotions going on within them.

Into this room, this state of anxiety, Jesus appears and has the greeting “Peace to you”.    The word “peace” in this context is a common word, but in this context, it meant the world to the disciples.  They needed peace.   

They had to be overwhelmed in seeing Jesus, but Jesus’ physical presence was also comforting.  Our passage this morning says that they rejoiced and they were strengthened by having seen the Lord.  

Jesus gives a charge to those disciples, an imperative command.  Just as the Father had sent Jesus to the world, Jesus was now sending the disciples out from behind shut doors into a crazy world desperate for hope.  A world full of fear, full of conflict…a world desperately in need of peace.  

Then, something happens, Jesus breathed on them.  This word “breathe” in this passage is the same word used in Genesis 2:7 where God breathes life into humanity, giving us life.  Jesus is in effect saying that he is the Son of God, God in the flesh, giving life to the disciples.  Jesus was not only bringing peace to the disciples, but breathing life into them.  The verse goes on to say that Jesus gives another imperative, to receive the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was breathing the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, God’s presence on to the disciples.  The Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit, the unifying power of God would bring the disciples together, giving them confidence and power to be who God created them to be.  

In verse 24 of this passage, we see that one of the 12 disciples, Thomas, wasn’t around to see Jesus the first time he appeared in that room.  8 days later though, they are hanging out and Jesus appears.  It’s interesting to note that these same disciples who had just been blessed by Jesus showing up and breathing on them are scared and locked up in that room again!  Yet, Jesus breaks through the walls again…gives them a peace blessing and then addresses Thomas.  Thomas wants more tangible evidence, so Jesus gives it to them.  Jesus doesn’t want to shame Thomas, this passage isn’t here to give reference to Thomas’ unbelief, but it’s here to give hope to those who haven’t seen.  The writer of this passage is giving a direct address to those reading in verse 31 that these things have been written for you…for us.

Friends, we may be living in fear, in anxiety.  We may have just witnessed Jesus’ very resurrection in our lives…we may even have lived our lives in expectation of God’s faithfulness to us.  Yet, here’s Jesus…appearing before us, walking through any barriers that we may be hiding behind.  Calling us out of the four walls we’ve enclosed ourselves in…giving us himself, breathing new life into us, and calling us towards the next thing…a full life with him!   Thomas and the rest of the disciples were living in fear, in disappointment.  They were tired.  Yet Jesus came to them, and comes to us…he invites us to know his scars, to touch the pain that has been inflicted upon him…to believe that he has overcome all things, even death, and so can we as we are Christ’s body!  

Look In.

John 20:1-18

The Resurrection of Jesus

20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Friends, here we are…Easter morning.  My morning started early!  It was dark…pitch dark.  Of course, it didn’t really start until I was able to get some coffee and a nice hot shower!  As a kid, I remember Easter morning always starting in the dark.  I couldn’t wait for it, it was kind of like Christmas “lite”, but with bunnies and candy…so, I was up, in the dark…looking for my Easter basket…and, yes, I loved the chocolate bunnies!!

Since then, life has happened.  I’m 54.  I’ve had some ups and downs.  And, I’m sure we all have. We’ve experienced loss, disappointment, expectations dashed.  When we get in touch with those moments of disorientation, we can have a notion, or an inkling, of what those early disciples were going through.  Their lives had been filled with so much, they met Jesus, they fell in love with him.  Even in this gospel narrative of John, we hear the phrase, the “disciple that Jesus loved”.  Now, scholars say that could be referencing John, or another disciple who’s writing this text, or it could mean all of humanity, or a reference to Judaism and Gentiles…those inside and those outside.  Either way, the disciples that morning, Mary Magdalene being the most prominent, had just seen their best friend, their rabbi, someone who’s words and actions drew them in, someone who they had projected their hopes and dreams on, humiliated and violently killed on a cross by a religious structure in bed with the state.  All because of love that asked us to be better humans, to include everyone in community, in authentic friendship across social barriers.

Jesus’ death was more than physical pain, that moment on the cross, Jesus was lost…resurrection was not on his mind. He cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. Many of us today have been disoriented by so much happening in our culture with the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, political partisanship, the collapsing of so many institutions, including the church, and then adding in our own personal issues. We have felt lost, wondering where God is in all of this, if God has forsaken us.  

Yet, if we believe that God and humanity are together in Jesus, then God through the cross, is telling us that God, the Divine, is in the struggle with us…all of the struggle, embracing all of our lives, and the lives of those around the world.    

We find ourselves here we are on Easter morning. What do we say to each other on this morning?  What phrase? Christ has risen! Christ has risen indeed! Jesus’ love for us, Jesus’ promise of a full life filled with purpose and presence could not be kept in a grave. 

Mary Magdalene was a true disciple and friend of Jesus…one of only two disciples that did not desert Jesus, goes and finds the tomb empty! She runs to tell the other disciples, they go to the tomb and find it as she said…and, I love this passage as a runner, John, who is at least credited with writing our gospel lesson this morning, makes it clear that he’s faster than Peter!  

These disciples ran to the tomb in the dark.  We come to Easter morning in the dark.  Maybe running around aimlessly in the dark even. It is important to note this, because Easter comes to us in the dark, it does not come alive in triumphant statements from this pulpit, from the liturgy or music of the moment…those things remind us of when Easter does come…it’s when we are disoriented or lost.  When we look at the casket of a loved one who has died.  When we sit with a church member who’s just gone through surgery and doesn’t know what’s going to happen next.  When we walk with a neighbor who’s daughter is going through a destructive relationship.   A friend who’s thinking about ending their lives.  When we hear of someone on a ventilator, fighting for their lives.  Or when we hear the voice of a loved one in the middle of a war zone wondering if they, or someone they know will make it through the day.

In those moments, when we are lost, when we see the empty tomb and wonder where God is…those are the moments when Easter becomes real.  Maybe like Mary, we run to friends, friends we’ve shared life with to look into to our lives or situations in life to get a different perspective.  Often, we find that they are just as disoriented, just as lost. But, they are there for us.  Friends, in this world where church is declining in attendance across the world, I believe it is more important than ever to remember that the church can be a great source of deep friendship and community, a gathering of people committed to leaning into the throes of life together…it’s more than what we do on a Sunday morning, or at any event.  It is a way of sharing life together.

In these moments of being in the dark when the impossible becomes possible, when, like Mary, we hear a voice that we don’t recognize at first call our names.  It may take a bit to hear deeply, but then we hear God calling us from deep inside and outside of us and we are awakened to a new reality, that God is with us as we look into the tombs of our lives in the midst of the darkness to find a deeper illumination, a light, a love that connects us to our suffering and the suffering of the world, and also gives us the hope that resurrection, growth, promise, and, yes, new life, springing up within us.  

Jesus models this kind of life, new life, filled with a love and calls us from the cross and the empty tomb to truly love everyone, including ourselves…which is often the hardest person to love, ourselves.  Yet, God says that if we want to change the world, we have to enter the suffering of the world, and that we have to start by entering our own suffering and to start with changing our own worlds.  We have to stay with that suffering before we get to the change, the growth. 

Mary does just that, she’s overcome by grief…yet she stays…she is weeping, struggling, in the dark. Yet, she stays at the tomb, letting things unfold…when she finally hears this gardener and sees that he is Jesus,  then, the joy of Easter possibility, Easter imagination, Easter reality rises up within her! 

What happens next? Well, the story gets out, the new reality sets in, people begin to see Jesus and to experience new things. Life as we know it is never the same, and it becomes filled with imagination, new possibilities, strength, confidence in the face of incredible odds. Something begins to form in these early believers that moves them to change the world, starting with their own awareness. 

I said at the beginning this morning that growing up I thought of Easter as Christmas “lite”.  As I grew and as life has come at me and as I’ve leaned into it, I have come to see Easter, as the early Jesus followers did, that Easter has so much to teach me…it’s more than candy and easter bunnies, it is leaning into the darkness and finding new birth, new beginnings…it is knowing that death is necessary, but not the final answer in my story, in God’s story, in your story.  We are all in the process of being reborn and becoming the persons that we have always wanted to be…especially in times of loss…God is always doing a new thing with us and in us.  Let us live towards that sense of awareness like Mary did.  

Christ has risen! 

Here this quote from M. Shawn Copeland:

If we, who would be his disciples, recall the night before Jesus died, we are led to a table, from a table to a garden, from a garden to a courtyard, from a courtyard to a hill, from a hill to a grave, from a grave to life. The table holds the self-gift of his very flesh and blood; the garden is watered by his tears and blood; and the cross holds him, even as the One whom he knows and loves lifts him up from the grave to release him into the surprise of hope and life.

Proclaim.

Luke 19:28-40

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,

“Blessed is the king
    who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
    and glory in the highest heaven!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

In 4th grade I was in love with Angel.  Yes, that was her name.  I got up the nerve one day to write her a note proclaiming my love for her.  I saw her read it and smile a bit I think.  Later, my friend Fred came up to me and told me he had heard about my love note, that Angel had shared it with him and others, and they all thought it was funny.  I was, of course, devastated…and deeply disappointed.  What I thought would be one thing, turned out not to be.  Well, as we jump into Holy Week…we know that expectations can lead to disappointment…

Here we are on Palm Sunday 2022!  And, it’s a big day…the day we kick off Holy Week 2022!  This is the week that we begin the home stretch if you will…we have spent the past several days in Lent preparing for this last part of the journey towards the cross.  But, we aren’t there yet…we have some more journeying to do…we have some more reality to face…we have some disappointment to do deal with as the story unfolds.

Today though we wave palms and proclaim that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem!  He comes to the city gates having sent two unnamed disciples to get a colt, one that has never been ridden.   The other gospel narratives of this story say that Jesus rode a donkey, not a colt.  A donkey signified humility, but Luke is making a statement by using a colt, an untamed one at that!  This Jesus is making a statement that history is moving towards.  It is wild, it is untamed, and it is the center of the universal arc of history that is leading towards victory…that love does ultimately win.  

Luke doesn’t name the disciples.  He doesn’t even really mention the disciples much.  It seems like they were dealing with so many questions, so much doubt, and quite a bit of anxiety.  They were uncertain of what was going to happen next, but they had hopes.  The crowds on the other hand were filled with folks on the margins, the hoi polloi, common people.  There were not the power brokers, but common folk who had heard about Jesus, had seen Jesus, and were drawn to this movement that was radically inclusive and had a promise of something new to emerge.  

The power people, the religious leaders, wanted Jesus to silence the crowds, that they were getting out of hand.  They were missing the point…Jesus said that he could not and would not stop them, because if he did, then even the rocks would cry out.  

All of creation, Jesus is saying in effect, was in eager anticipation of this moment, of this season, that would change everything.  

Jesus was on his way to the festival, passover, a celebration, at the Temple, the spiritual center of Judaism…once there, he would proclaim that it would be destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days.  In essence, this temple doesn’t contain God, God is contain less, God is in all things.  And that his body, the body of Christ, in which we all live in, is universal.  And, that in a world filled with wars, disinformation, false narratives that divide us, plagues, pandemics, hunger, crisis after crisis, that there will be peace on earth.  Notice that this passage implicitly states that, “peace on earth”, not just some pie in the sky heavenly peace…but, peace now!  Restoration from the all of the destructive narratives that divide…restoration to our truest selves as created in God’s image.

Yet, we know the story.  These religious leaders, political pawns in a system that they’ve created to benefit them, turn enough of the crowd by the end of the week to turn the proclamations of “hosanna” to “crucify him”.  They become disappointed, deeply.  

Friends, all of us face holy week, and our lives, with expectations…and often we are disappointed, but disappointment is also key for our growth.  Dave Whyte, the poet, says this:

Disappointment is a friend to transformation, a call to both accuracy and generosity in the assessment of our self and others, a test of sincerity and a catalyst of resilience. Disappointment is just the initial meeting with the frontier of an evolving life, an invitation to reality, which we expected to be one particular way and turns out to be another, often something more difficult, more overwhelming and strangely, in the end, more rewarding. 

Jesus doesn’t change course that week.  He must continue on towards the reality of the ups and downs of the life that he shares with humanity.  

He had been journeying upwards, towards Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is on a hill, pilgrimages to Jerusalem have an upward movement.  It can be hard.  Add into that the opposition of some, those with loud voices and a transactional worldview that is skewed towards the few, Jesus knew that the final part of his journey would be the hardest.

After Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, the ascent, the upward movement is over…and the week starts out with a celebration and then moved downward, a descent, into death.  Of Jesus giving himself away…of letting love flow out of him into us…Jesus, descending, God with us in the throes of life, of celebration, and of disappointment.  

This messenger walked in the way of humility, of giving himself away… check this out in our lectionary passage in Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,

    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

– Philippians 2:5-8

It was, as we know.  And it holds for us the reality that we have to celebrate a message and the messenger that is bringing Good News of God’s being with all of us.  And, we also have to bear the reality that this message and messenger will keep on calling us towards something beautiful and hard:  growth and restoration…healing our image of ourselves that we have created towards the image that God has made us in, that we are loved and we are God’s own…and that we are in constant union with God, one another, all of creation, the Universe.  We are the body of Christ, the universal body of Christ, and no one is to be left out of that love…this connection calls us to go through darkness, to lean into them, and to remember, to hold on to this narrative that God gives us, and that we proclaim even in the disappointment, even in the darkness.  And that embracing this journey, the ups and downs, the celebrations, the expectations, and the hard disappointment, that we come to terms with who we are and we are transformed…resurrected even.  

Love Wins!  

Fragrant.

Now, I’ve heard that some folks love my stories in a sermon, some don’t, some listen deeply and find meaning, some tune out and either put up a mental and emotional roadblock to the scripture and interpretations, find fault in something…or simply not interested and want to get on with their day or are just happy to sit for an hour or so…and, yes, sometimes the preacher isn’t tuned in to the divine flow…either way, it’s OK…that’s kind of church…I’d love to find a way to connect with everyone…and to constantly live in that divine flow…what it boils down to is deep trust and listening…and not just with the preacher, but with the words being spoken that are not just the preachers…and that the divine movement, the God movement, is always happening, whether we acknowledge it or not. 

John 12:1-8

Mary Anoints Jesus

12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

And, I do have a story.  

Oftentimes, words in a situation really speak something to us.  Several years ago I was in Nicaragua with a group of about 30-40 high school students from my youth group at Northminster.  Nicaragua is the second poorest county in the Western Hemisphere.  We had broken the group up in teams of 3-4 for what we called “home stays”.  Its where we would spend 24 hours with a Nicaraguan family.  I was with a couple of other students and we stayed with my now friend, Manuel.  He took us to a restaurant and bought our dinner.  It was huge…and it only coast $2 in US dollars per meal.  About a dozen or so of Manuel’s extended family and neighbors came with us.  While we were eating, we noticed that Manuel and his wife, Rosie, and the three of us were the only ones with food.  I asked Manuel why, he said that we were the guests of honor and that they wanted to bless and honor us…and that $2 was more than what most folks made in a day, they couldn’t afford it.  Being an American with $50 in my pocket, I told him we’d buy everyone a meal…his response, no, don’t, accept our hospitality and be in this moment.  

The words and the moment were powerful.  

In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is hanging out in the home of Lazarus, with Mary and Martha.  Think about that one for a moment…Lazarus, the guy raised from the dead.  Mary and Martha…that’s a full story of relationship.  Martha, always working, Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet.  

Then Mary, who really must have loved Jesus, loved what he was about, who he was and is…took a very expensive perfume.  She anointed Jesus’ feet!  In the other gospel accounts, Jesus’s head is anointed.  In this gospel, the gospel of John, the disciple that “Jesus loved” as he refers himself as in this gospel, has Jesus’ feet getting anointed…that’s a mark of humility.  On that same Nicaragua trip, we did a foot washing, it is humbling to get on your knees, to touch another’s feet…both Nicaraguans and Americans (especially teenagers!), yet, we did it…and we all cried…why?  Because we loved one another.

Now, Judas, one of the disciples, a part of Jesus’ team, a member of the Body of Christ, starts to complain.  Now, when someone is complaining vigorously about something that is out of the ordinary, even it really doesn’t really affect him, then you kind of know where the priorities are…Judas is kind of a sad figure at times, he doesn’t seem to quite get it.  I have empathy for him actually.   Jesus loved Judas, still does…but Judas had a lot of roadblocks emotionally to receiving that love…he couldn’t love himself, was not aware of others, and because he couldn’t love himself, receive God’s love through Jesus, he couldn’t see Mary’s act of love…

He responds how expensive this perfume was and that it could have been used in other ways.  On the surface, that makes sense.  It was expensive.  I think Judas was actually being somewhat sincere.  He was acting out of a worldview that he really believed in.  And, he was a zealot, he believed in what he was doing.  He also projected on to Jesus his aspirations, without doing the work of really listening to what God was conveying to him through Jesus and others.  It’s also interesting to note that Judas did become bitter as his projections on Jesus and others didn’t pan out, did not fit with the image that he created…he eventually sold out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, a fraction of the cost of the perfume.  And, yes, it drove him to such despair when he finally realized what he had done that he took his life.  

If only Judas could have seen the grace of this moment.  

Jesus doesn’t condemn him, doesn’t stop loving him.  And, by the way, as we look at Jesus, we can also have confidence that Judas always had grace.  You see, Jesus was telling Judas, and the audience that day, to be present with who is with you.  He is saying that there are some things in this world that will not change.  But, we can change.  We can have a new story, and it starts with listening deeply to what the divine voice is saying inside and around us…and to stay present in the moment. 

Friends, Mary was present in her love for Jesus.  The perfume filled the room with an amazing fragrance…but, there was a deeper beauty there as well…the beauty of being present in the moment that is filled with such love that connects us all.  

Church, if we are willing, we can live into this love…it starts by simply receiving it.  It doesn’t make sense, it’s extravagant, it’s not always practical, and it certainly goes against our notions of how the world works.  We don’t earn it, we simply have it.

Fleming Road UCC, in many ways, is pouring out expensive perfume.  We sometimes worry at how long it will last, but we cannot miss this present moment.  We are loving one another, we are loving our neighbors, we are giving ourselves away to our Nepali friends, and now our Ukrainian friends, and we are not getting bogged down by too much complaining as we trust and love one another and love and trust a God who reminds us that we are not alone.  

Our lectionary passage in Philippians says this:  13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 

Friends, let’s move on from the past, live as the beloved, and press on towards a future where we continue to become one with God, with one another, and with the world around us…may live into the communion of God as demonstrated through the words and actions of Jesus.  

Prodigal.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 

The Parable of the Lost Sheep 

15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 

3 So he told them this parable:

The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother 

11 Then Jesussaid, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute  living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself withthe pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going
on.
27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the fathersaid to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” 

Have you ever lost something like a wallet or your keys? Do you go and try to find them? Drives you crazy when you can’t right? 

Our gospel lesson this morning finds Jesus telling similar experiences. He’s responding to some of the religious leaders of his day questioning why Jesus hung out with so many folks from outside the religious boundaries of the day. Jesus’ disciples may have been wondering the same thing. It seems like Jesus hung out more with folks on the margins, folks who were outside the religious institutions…prostitutes, tax collectors who weren’t very honest, widows, children (who were not counted fully as people back then…). 

So, Jesus does what he normally does. He tells stories, parables, that have lots of deeper meanings. It’s as if he’s telling a story with a seed planted in the words. When those words hit fertile ground, someone may not notice, but those seeds grow, giving meaning and growth. 

Our opening shares the setting of the grumbling questioning, why is Jesus not only talking to these folks, but he’s eating with them! Which, back in that day, meant that you were building a friendship. 


I get it, that’s why I’m always open for sharing some coffee, drink, or food together! 

Always an open invitation! 

Jesus shares a couple of parables about a shepherd leaving 99 sheep to find one lost sheep, and about a woman having 10 silver coins who loses one and then cleans the whole house, turns it upside down, to find it. The idea of course is that no one and no thing is outside of God’s pursuit, of God’s love and presence. God will not stop until God finds the lost person and brings it back into relationship, into community. 

Then we come to this parable of the lost son, or the Prodigal son. We see a loving father of two sons. The younger son wants to strike out on his own, so he asks for his father’s inheritance. In essence, he’s saying that he doesn’t need the father anymore. Notice that the father gives the inheritance to both the younger son, and the older son. 

What does the younger son do? He goes to a foreign land and wastes his money on prostitutes, parties, and all sorts of other vices. Then comes a famine to the land and he didn’t have anything to eat. He’s left to finding a job feeding pigs, which for a jewish audience, that would be the worst! After a while, he hits rock bottom in his life. Hitting rock bottom either kills ya’ or it makes you think. The younger son is hungry, he remembers that his dad’s servants had it better than what he’s experiencing now. So, he thinks up a great speech and resolves to go back to this dad, plead forgiveness and ask to be one of his father’s hired hands. 

He sets off and as he’s approaching his father’s house, his dad sees him from a distance. Our scripture says that he was filled with compassion. That word in the greek has a deep meaning of movement in the depth of your bowels, it moved him physically with love! He runs out, puts his arms around him, hugs him…then the son tries to begin his speech, but the father isn’t listening, he’s filled with love and tells his servants to give him the finest clothes, put the ring back on his finger signifying that he’s his son, kill the fatted calf, we are throwing a party!!!! He exclaims “my son was dead, and now he’s alive!”… he’s back. The father had not given up on his son and now his son was back! 

But, then there’s the older son. He hears the music and dancing and asks a servant what’s going on. The servant, kind of matter of factly, says that his brother is back and his dad’s throwing a party in celebration! How does the older son react? He’s angry, jealous, and filled with resentment. He refuses to go to the party. But, what does the father do? He loves his older son just as much, he goes out to him as well, away from the party, and pleads for him to go in. His son, with much outward pride, says that he’s been working hard all of these years while his younger son was partying away his inheritance…and his father had never thrown a party for him. The father responds, that yes, he has been with him, but this is his brother, and he was lost, but now found…so we must celebrate. 

We don’t know what happens with the older son. But, both sons were lost, and both had a father who loved them. 

We can all related to both sons if we are honest. We waste our gifts and talents on frivolous living…or we live in resentment and pride when we don’t get what we think we deserve. We often don’t even recognize our need until we hit rock bottom, or we are so unhappy trying to live a false life of pride and works. Yet, we have a loving God who truly is crazy in love with us. That love can cause us to grow in wonderful ways. That love gives us the ability to love ourselves, love others, and to experience love from others. 

There is also a pattern in this passage of loss, recovery, restoration, celebration. 


The loss of relationship with self, others, God.

The recovery of one’s senses, a movement towards action in one’s life. 

The restoration of relationship with self, others, God. 

The celebration of God with one’s self, other, and God recognition…a celebration of embrace and unrestrained love. 

The father shows us how God loves us, how God takes on everything, even our shame… what’s more, this God becomes our shame and transforms and redeems it into something more…God’s embrace that gives us our identity as God’s beloved. We also have to remember that God is both father and mother and many other things throughout scripture. What this and other texts is trying to share with us is that we have a God who is intimate and everywhere and in all things and people shaping us and shaping our world. 

Henri Nouwen, the catholic philosopher, theologian, writer says this in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, which I’d highly recommend reading, says this: 

“Each time we touch the sacred emptiness of non-demanding love, heaven and earth tremble and there is great ‘rejoicing among the angels of God.’ it is the joy for the returning sons and daughters. It is the joy of spiritual parenthood.” 

We are all invited to be gradually transformed by God’s love from being the younger and older sons, wherever we find ourselves, into the compassionate parent Henri Nouwen goes on to say and to live lives filled with gratitude, celebration, and not resentment 

There is a movement in this story…to be changed by transformational relationship in a world that often only understands transactional relationships.  A new social imaginary, a new way of seeing ourselves.  

May we remember that Jesus shows us through his life and actions that all are embraced by God! This is Good news! Welcome the embrace! Celebrate! 

Figs.

Luke 13:1-9

Repent or Perish

13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Many of you know my good friend Sean Gladding.  He’s been a part of Fleming Road UCC’s history in that he’s spoken here, led retreats with us, and many of you have read his books and we even did a book/video study of his a while back.

Sean is one of my best friends and we spent some time together this past Friday.  So good.  We shared, and continue to share, a lot of life.  He’s a true friend that loves me unconditionally, and vice versa.  

He’s also an avid gardener, especially in urban settings.  He has build community for decades and common spaces where things are grown together have been a central part of his community building and organizing.  When I was in Birmingham, England recently, visiting with another friend, Sam Ewall, who also is an urban gardener, Sean was mentioned as an example of living into a neighborhood and using gardening as a practical way to feed a neighborhood, but also contribute to a neighborhood’s financial and relational well-being…it’s growth.

Sean also likes figs and grows them in his front and back yards in his neighborhood.  Those are figs in the slide.  

Which is appropriate in this morning’s lectionary gospel reading.

The writer of Luke starts off with a reference to Galileans being slaughtered by Pilate, mixing their blood in with their sacrifices…which made them unclean in death.  Pilate, like many rulers throughout history, had an ego that was demonstrated with amazing cruelty…much like we are seeing today with Putin and Ukraine.  This was an added insult by Pilate because he not only killed them, but did so in a way that they did not have time to repent.  The next reference about the tower of Siloam, no one really knows about because there isn’t an independent historical record of what happened.  But, the same message, they perished before they repented.  

Now, we know as we have talked about this before…repentance is not harsh, it’s actually pretty simple.  It’s a change of heart, a change of mind.  I would even add a phrase and layer by saying like a shift in “social imaginary”.  Social imaginary is a set way of thinking and being in the world because of values that we are raised in, institutions that we lean into, cultural ways of being.  A social imaginary is a neutral term, it can be good and it can be limiting.  If we experience change in the world in which we live, and our social imaginary limits us to doing things the same we always have…and we don’t shift in that imaginary to adapt to those changes, then we eventually whither away and die.

The gospel message is that our social imaginary is bound up in a dynamic flow with God and with one another that moves us towards living abundant lives filled with love for ourselves, others, in a cosmic divine union.  In that dynamic relationship, we have certain characteristics.  We lean into change, we listen, we grow and produce fruit through giving and receiving hospitality, we respect tradition, but we don’t let it limit us from trying new things…even things that will probably fail, but knowing that, in God’s economy, failure leads to growth and even resurrection.  Exhibit A is the cross…an executioners symbol that is supposed to be emblematic of humiliation, punishment, violence, and the power of the state.  When one is crucified, he or she is put down and has failed in something.  

But, with God, this symbol has become instead a symbol of God’s power which is always being emptied and coming down to us and pushing us towards new growth, to resurrection.  

It can be hard…the Christian way of being…it calls us to lean into the growth process which is not what the systems of the world say…they say win at all costs, be comfortable, avoid pain and struggle.  The way of Jesus is to lean into the struggle, to endure, to find solace in God’s “with-ness”, being with us…and to grow stronger in who we created to be in our true selves.  

1 Corinthians 1:-13 is also one of our lectionary readings.  The writer of this Pauline epistle has some harsh words, check it out, but in the end, it’s reminding us to persevere, to not complain, but to listen and lean into whatever is “testing” us in order for us to grow.

Back to our gospel lesson, the writer of Luke talks about figs.  It usually takes three years for a fig tree to produce fruit as Luke tells us, and Sean would tell us also!

This fig tree hasn’t produced fruit.  The vineyard owner went to the gardener and told him to tear it down.  It wasn’t producing fruit.  But, the gardener says lets give it another year.  He puts manure down…compost.  Waste that is usually thrown away…but, if you garden, you know that our waste, if given oxygen over time, can become nutrients for new growth.  

Friends, our church may seem like that fig tree.  But, God, the master gardener, is reminding us that nothing is wasted, that what we have done for decades, centuries even, can be good nutrients for future growth.  It can be messy, smelly at times.  But, we must have patience with our church, and with ourselves.  We may feel like the church, at times, is not producing fruit.  We may also feel that way about our own personal lives.

But God is reminding us in Luke to take a second and even third or fourth look…at our ourselves and who we are as a faith community.  We have an amazing history, a beautiful present, and the potential for a great future.  But, we have to have a gardener’s patience…and maybe listen to one another, our neighbors, and to God like the gardener did, and less talking like the vineyard owner.  We have time for a change, a transformation, a new social imaginary to emerge from the old one…let’s be patient with ourselves and one another, but let’s also be intentional and listen for opportunities to grow new things.  

Lament.

Luke 13:31-35

The Lament over Jerusalem

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when[ you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

We’ve all experienced disappointment in our lives.  I know I have.  We can probably all think of times when we hoped for something, and then not have it happen.  This past year in so many ways, has been a series of disappointments as we live through such a period of change with the pandemic, political and social unrest, and our own personal struggles.  

It has been a season of lament.  Which is actually good and a part of a the process towards growth.

It’s especially important as we are in the middle of Lent…a time of questioning and stripping away…of dying even as we head to the cross and on to resurrection.  Jesus understood lament…he embraced it.  And, so should we if we want to grow.

As a church, we often don’t know what we want to see happen other than the church to survive, but maybe we have deeper hopes for it to thrive….yet, our definitions for thriving may be hard to articulate at times.  It’s safe to say that at our deepest hopes are with relationships.  We are wired for relationship with the world around us and with people.  It doesn’t matter if you are introvert or an extrovert, we all crave relationship and put hope into relationships.  

In the passage above, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when some sympathetic pharisees, or religious rulers warning him that Herod wants to kill him.  Jesus calls Herod a “fox”, which is interesting to note.  The biblical understanding of a fox in this text is not that Herod is cunning, but that Herod is a small animal that does not have power, is impotent.  Jesus says in affect, I’m casting out demons and have the relational power to overcome unseen forces.  Herod has no control over me.  Jesus then goes on to say that he must he has work today for the next couple of days and that it will be finished on the 3rd day.  This could be a reference to Jesus death and resurrection.  

Jesus certainly gives his hearers a reference that he cannot be killed outside of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is the center of Jewish faith at that time, the city where the temple of God is.  Jewish folk believed that God’s Presence on earth dwelt there.  It is also the place where prophets are killed.  When prophets came with a message of lament, of a need for change, repentance, relational restoration…the established system, those in power, felt threatened, they would be killed.    

Even though persons in the religious establishment were not joyful, they still had control and did not want to give that control up.  They were in a place of broken relationship with each other, themselves, and with God.  They were what I’d call “resistors” and resistors have roadblocks that can often thwart their growth, their joy, and the growth and joy of others.

Jesus laments, deeply, with great emotion for Jerusalem.  Jesus understands the important of “place”, that people are deeply rooted in a  community and that has potential for great things, but when not living up to it’s potential, when resistant to God’s desire for genuine relationship and community, a place can be destructive.

So, Jesus laments, describes a God who longs to take God’s people, all people, under God’s wings like a hen protecting her chicks.  A God who longs to be in loving relationship with God’s people, to protect them, to bless them beyond measure with friendship and Presence.  

Jerusalem not only signifies the center of religious life for Israel, it can also be descriptive of the church.  God longs for the church to be a place of deep relationship, not only for those inside the church, but for those outside.  Jesus represents all of humanity, and Jesus demonstrates that God is not limited to a building….Jesus goes to places outside of the temple, the synagogue, and continues today to go outside of the church walls.  Jesus says that the temple, the house, is abandoned by God, but God does not abandon God’s people.  

Jerusalem kills its prophets.  But, God keeps on sending those prophets.  There is a flow in and through God that cannot be stopped.

Friends, hear this the good news, lamenting can come out of being dark places in our lives, but lamenting leads us towards growth.  Jesus loves Jerusalem, and Jesus loves his church.  Jesus has promised, and demonstrated, that even though he aches for us, he also aches with us.  He is with us in all that we experience and is with us in the lamenting and in the darkness.  We also know that God, through Jesus, demonstrates that darkness doesn’t win and that we can grow and move towards the promise of blessing as Jesus comes to us.  Lamenting can produce faith.  Faith in and through God’s commitment to us even in the midst of life’s hard places.  

In this season of Lent, may we embrace all of life…even lamenting…and move toward’s the life that God intends for us…a life with the resurrected Jesus…a resurrected Jesus that also bore the scars of crucifixion…a Jesus who understands us and is with us…even in the lamenting that leads towards a deeper growth.